Miles Halter is looking for his “Great Perhaps.” Sick of suburbia, he sets out to live a life of possibilities. His journey takes him to a boarding school in Alabama. At first, he is discouraged by the mediocre campus and the heat, but then he meets Alaska. She has more personality that anyone Miles has ever met. In Miles’ words, “If people were rain, I was a drizzle and she was a hurricane” (p. 87-88). The book details the misadventures of Miles, Alaska and their friends as they break the rules and test the boundaries of school, friendship, and life. Green has said that this story is very loosely based on events from his teenage years, but the story is so fictionalized that he hesitates to make the comparison. (Green, (n.d), Questions).
At first glance, a reader may think this book is somewhat unremarkable. The relationship between the two main character follow a typical stereotype: the impossibly beautiful, funny, smart girl and the geeky, average boy who falls for her. This dynamic is repeated in Green’s Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines. However, Looking for Alaska is not just another teen romance.
Miles takes a World Religions class which he believes “might be an easy A” (Green, 2005, p. 31). Through this class, the reader is introduced to many religious and philosophical concepts. Each student must come up with the most important question and then describe how three major religions would answer the question. When tragedy strikes, Miles is forced to consider these questions and how they relate to his own life.
Alaska’s question is “How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” Her character brings an element of depth to the story. She is beautiful, smart, and funny–the typical “perfect girl.” But, as her question suggests, there is something darker to her character. One day she is enthusiastically planning a prank with her friends, the next day she shuts down and refuses to answer any “how, when, why, who or what questions” (Green, 2005, p. 167). Although her mental state is never fully explained in the book, the reader could deduce that Alaska is mentally unstable from her dramatic mood swings and erratic behavior.
The inclusion of religious and philosophical concepts takes Looking for Alaska to the next level. The book asks the reader: What is the meaning of life? Perhaps more importantly, how can we find meaning in a world that refuses to give us answers and seems so random? (Green, 2005, p. 230). This book is rife for discussion and would make an excellent teen book club selection. Teens are considering questions about the nature and meaning of life but often do not have an outlet to express themselves on the topic. Reading and discussing this book would be an excellent introduction to philosophical inquiry.
Green doesn’t tie up the story with a neat bow. Major events are left ambiguous and he never provides a clear answer to the questions he poses about the nature of life. As he writes in the Looking for Alaska discussion guide, “I wanted to know whether it is possible to live a hopeful life in a world riddled with ambiguity, whether we can find a way to go on even when we don’t get the answers to the questions that haunt us” (Green, 2005, p.230).
Green’s willingness to confront life’s ambiguous nature is arguably his most notable strength as a YA author. By allowing his characters and plot to retain an element of mystery, he is challenging teens to think and engage with his work as well as preparing them for literature they will encounter as adults.
Green, J. (2005). Looking for Alaska. New York, NY: Dutton Books.
Green, J. (n.d.). Questions about Looking for Alaska (SPOILERS!). In John Green: New York Times Bestselling Author. Retrieved May 7, 2014, from http://johngreenbooks.com/alaska-questions/.